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Looking at the Welsh constituency betting

November 17th, 2019

This looks like being a volatile election in many areas, but nowhere is that truer than in Wales. Five different parties are currently polling in double digits and none is yet polling above 30%. Current polls suggest that the current distribution of constituencies could be upended. Polling, of course, could still change dramatically before the election actually arrives.

Historically, Wales has been dominated by Labour. They have won the most seats in every election since December 1918. At the last election, Labour won 28 out of the 40 seats and 49% of the vote.

Perhaps Labour will recover to that vote share but right now that looks unlikely. They last polled at 29%, having mislaid fully 40% of their support since 2017. When parties suffer such dramatic falls, uniform national swing becomes a very dangerous rule of thumb to be using.  In all likelihood the distribution of that loss of support will vary considerably between constituencies.

In 2015 in Scotland, Labour lost 42% of their support from the previous election. But that loss of support differed dramatically between constituencies. In Edinburgh South, Labour actually gained vote share. In Glasgow North East, Labour lost over 50% of its vote share. In some seats in which Labour were not in contention, the loss of vote share was still higher as Labour got squeezed (they lost more than two thirds of their vote share in Ross Skye & Lochaber, for example). 

So those betting on Welsh constituencies need to consider not just what the parties might eventually poll but how that might be redistributed. How efficient each party’s vote is going to be is going to be critical.

Unlike in Scotland in 2015, no one party has taken advantage of Labour’s travails. Relative to the 2017 election, the Conservatives are polling just one point up at 28%. The Brexit party have taken a sizeable chunk – 15%. The Lib Dems are up 7.5% to 12% and Plaid have inched forward 1.5% to 12%.  

Appropriately for a country whose national flag bears a dragon, this polling suggests that the Welsh constituencies are going to be a battle of the five armies (you can decide for yourself who are the eagles and who are the orcs).  Anyone making confident predictions is a lot braver than I am. Too much looks to depend on the distribution of the vote as well as the vote shares.

Anyway, let’s take a butcher’s at the constituencies. Here they are alphabetically. I present these for betting purposes from the perspective of Labour, since they are in contention in most constituencies.  

It is, however, more useful to sort these by the price on Labour, as here.  Immediately, as you would expect, the red mostly rises to the top. Labour are priced at 5/6 (the bookies’ evens) or better in 20 seats. This is actually ahead of what uniform national swing would suggest, which is for them to win 18 seats.   If Labour’s vote were to crash as hard as the most recent polls indicate, you would expect them actually to underperform uniform national swing: the floor in their vote in their weakest constituencies means that the loss of vote share would need to happen elsewhere ie in constituencies with more Labour voters at the last election.

So bettors appear to expect Labour to do better than recent Welsh polling suggests.

As it happens, I agree with the consensus. Labour have already been doing a bit better in UK-wide polling since the election was called and there is no reason to assume that anything different is happening in Wales. And that long muscle memory of voting Labour in Wales is likely to help them when it comes to the crunch.

Even if you disagree, in some of the seats the main challengers are preposterously short. In Ogmore, Labour are priced at 1/5 to retain a 37% majority. In Newport East, they are at just 4/6 to defend a 21% majority.  Perhaps some bettors have inside information. I’m dubious. In both of these seats I’d rather be backing Labour at those prices than the Conservatives at 3/1 and 11/10 respectively. The prices are just too short.

For the same reason, Labour look good value at 3/1 in Vale of Clwyd. They hold the seat with a very experienced MP in Chris Ruane, who is very used to scrapping for votes. The seat is relatively close to Merseyside, which has a Labour party that in recent elections has demonstrated a ferocious ability to work neighbouring constituencies to secure outsized swings as compared with the national figure. He’ll be harder to unhorse than that price suggests.

If you’re looking to bet on the Conservatives, unless you have compelling information, I’d be looking at the size of swing required. The 5/4 in Bridgend looks tempting, given that the Conservatives only require a 5.5% swing and the polls suggest that they’re doing twice as well as that in Wales. With 40% of the vote last time, they might take the seat just by standing still.

There’s no evidence as yet of the Conservatives significantly gaining vote share in Wales, so I would not bet on them in seats where they had a low vote share in 2017 – the votes would have to fall in a very precise way for them to take such seats unless they actually gain vote share. I’ve mentioned Ogmore once. The Conservatives tallied 25% of the vote in 2017. If they’re not going to increase their vote share, 3/1 is ludicrously short for them to win it.

Plaid Cymru haven’t advanced much in the polls so you wouldn’t expect them to be particularly well-placed to make gains.  Ynys Mon is their best prospect, but that is murky, given its long history of voting for the person rather than the party. You’d need more local knowledge than I have to risk your money.

The Lib Dems have their tails up. However, they have few obvious targets in Wales – unsurprisingly since they were wiped out in 2017. If they tally 12% in the polls, that vote will have to go somewhere, but it’s not at all clear where.  They will fight hard to retain Brecon & Radnorshire, which they won earlier this year at a by-election, and they will scrap with Plaid Cymru over Ceredigion (like Ynys Mon, a very personality-driven seat). Elsewhere their best hope in reality is to establish themselves as being back in contention. They held Cardiff Central till 2015 but 11/2 looks very mean for them to get a 24.5% swing from third place. Not a bet for me.

This brings me to the newest party on the block, the Brexit party. So far they’ve had a woeful election, withdrawing candidates from every Conservative-held seat after pressure from the newspapers. They are as a result unlikely to obtain anything like the 15% in Wales that they polled in that last poll. But if they do, that vote is likely to be concentrated in specific seats. The Brexit party performed very well in the Welsh valleys in the Euro elections and UKIP scored fairly well in some of these seats in 2015, demonstrating a continuing strident Euroscepticism in these areas. The bold might fancy a flutter on some of the long shot bets on them in such seats – 80/1 in Llanelli or 50/1 in Torfaen for example. This is 2019. Stranger things have happened.

Alastair Meeks